This year, James Kettor bought a tree. The artificial evergreen stands near the television in the living room, draped in colorful lights. And for the family's holiday dinner, from the small kitchen, his wife, Sarah, will prepare nine bowls of rice, with cassava and palava sauce, instead of two.

Through seven lonesome Christmases, the Kettors were separated: the parents in Philadelphia trying to scratch out a version of the American dream, and the children - from the eldest, John, 25, through Elizabeth, James Jr., Baindu, Amelia, and Marie to the youngest, 12-year-old Mark - living with an uncle thousands of miles away in the brutal shadows of war-torn Liberia.

After all the paperwork for visa applications, and the church fund-raisers for airfare from Africa, the Kettors will finally, joyously share Christmas under one roof, in their modest three-bedroom rowhome in the Elmwood section of Southwest Philadelphia.

"I never had a family here," said James Kettor, 48, a short, solid, gracious man, sitting on a sofa by the tree, near John, Elizabeth, and James Jr.

"We tell God 'Thank you' for us to be here as family once again."

On Christmases past in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, James Kettor recalled, children paraded before their friends in new clothes, families shared their feasts with neighbors, and people danced in jubilee. The Kettors mostly stayed inside.

"We couldn't do anything much," he said. They didn't have much money.

Such challenges followed them to America.

James Kettor graduated from Temple University in May with a degree in public health, paid for with student loans. He works at a mental-health facility where he dispenses medicine, prepares meals, and plans social activities, mostly during the midnight shift, earning $9.33 an hour.

His wife, 44, starts her workday at 5 a.m., when she leaves the house to make a two-hour public transit commute to Delaware County, where she works eight hours at a fast-food chain.

To reunite the family, the Kettors had to find a sponsor, a government requirement to assure that the children would be cared for financially. They found two such samaritans through their church, St. Francis de Sales in West Philadelphia, and through parish events they raised enough money for the children's travel expenses.

The church also helped them find a scholarship for the two youngest children, Marie and Mark, to attend Catholic school.

"The sisters in the church have been so wonderful," James Kettor said. "For them to help us has been such a blessing."

In 1989, rebel forces toppled the Liberian government, triggering eight years of bloodshed between ethnic factions.

"Everyone was running for their life," said Kettor, describing how his family fled from town to town.

At some point, while Kettor was studying accounting on scholarship in Sierra Leone, he lost touch with the other members of his family. He found them months later in a small village in Guinea, where, once reunited, he helped build a refugee camp and a school.

After former warlord Charles Taylor took office as president in 1998, the family moved back to Monrovia, and Kettor clerked for the minister of finance. But civil war erupted again, and in 2002 Taylor declared a state of emergency. Looking for an escape route, James and Sarah applied for the Diversity Lottery, an annual sweepstakes that grants permanent U.S. residency to 50,000 foreigners. One morning a year later, a classmate ran up to Kettor. His name was listed in the newspaper. He had won the lottery.

"My friend started calling me 'American James,' " Kettor remembered, then laughed.

He sold the family home to finance a new start, and arrived in Philadelphia in 2003. Once he got settled, his wife followed.

He attended college in the day, and worked as a security guard at night. She found a job serving fast food. "Those jobs were just for survival," he said.

The Kettors sent money to Liberia for their children's needs, and called them twice a week.

"The younger ones would cry" on the phone, remembered James Jr., who was 15 when his parents fled Liberia. "We all missed them so much."

"It was terrible," Kettor added, sitting next to his son. "You don't know what is going on. You feel so bad. You just want to be with them and you can't."

When heartache swelled, Kettor found faith in his resolve. So did his children.

"In everything, I trust my father," said John, lanky with almond-shaped eyes. "He told me, 'John, you are my son. Take courage and God will make a way.' "

Kettor worked tirelessly with the Liberian Consulate and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and with the help of his parish, got visas and funding to finally reunite the family in Philadelphia.

Elizabeth, 24, arrived in November 2009. James Jr., 22; Baindu, 20; Amelia, 18; Marie, 14; and Mark followed in January. Finally, John arrived in November.

"They were all taller," Kettor said, his eyes wide. "The boys, their voices were deep, and they had mustaches." And the girls had blossomed into lovely young women.

In Philadelphia, Kettor's concern for his children has shifted. Like the generations before them, the older ones, unsure of the language and culture around them, search for their place, and for jobs. The younger ones struggle with the basics of elementary school.

"It's another process of learning," Kettor said.

Marie and Mark attend St. Francis de Sales Catholic School, which has 515 students representing 43 countries, half of whom live in poverty, said the principal, and many of whom benefit from programs tailored to their special needs. To pay Marie and Mark's tuition, the Kettors receive an annual scholarship from the charitable organization Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools.

"It's a collective community effort to make sure that the children are meeting with success," said the principal, Sister Mary McNulty, "and the challenges are great. We might not get the success we want at the beginning, but we work at it."

In the Kettor home, recent graduation photos, of him in a navy cap and gown smiling next to Sarah, hang over the doorway to the kitchen, next to a drawing of Jesus.

"I pray they all succeed," Kettor said of his children, and that they listen to him and his wife, and stay on the right path. If not, "coming here will make no use. But I believe in them. I have to believe in them."

Education, he said, is "my number-one thinking."

Next year, John, Elizabeth, and James Jr. said they plan to attend community college, where they've taken classes on U.S. culture, and reading, writing, and math skills. John wants to become a scientist. Elizabeth dreams of a nursing career. James Jr. has his sights set on medical school.

"The first one to finish college," Kettor said, "I promised to buy a car."

As far as Christmas presents this year, the Kettors are content with each other.

"My wife, I give her my heart," said Kettor, laughing with outstretched arms. Sitting at his side, James Jr. rolled his eyes and laughed with him. They are all family once again.

Contact staff writer Kia Gregory at 215-854-2601 or kgregory@phillynews.com